Category Archives: Year Two

Lessons from my second year of teaching general education upper grades.

Symbolism Cupcakes

One of my crowning culinary and pedagogical triumphs was in my second year of teaching. I was teaching 5th grade at the time, and we were culminating a wonderful fantasy reading and writing unit. Kids’ book baggies were filled with different fantasy novels, they were writing their own amazing fantasy stories (with portals, heroes, and quests), and they were working really hard to grasp the concept of symbolism.

My favorite way to introduce symbolism was by drawing a red octagon on the dry erase board. Everyone knows that as a symbol for STOP, and therefore, everyone has an entry point into understanding symbolism.

Our read aloud for the fantasy unit was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The kids absolutely loved it both years I used it. It is a riveting tale and a lot of fun to read together. If you’ve never read it, I won’t ruin the story. Suffice to say, though, the book drips with symbolism: winter, spring the color white, dawn, and Christmas are all powerful symbols that require some major thinking that rewards the reader with a really powerful experience.

When we finished our fantasy unit, we celebrated with cupcakes that I baked for the class. The kids were dying to eat them, but I wouldn’t allow it until they could figure out the symbols I had “hidden” in the colors and ingredients of the cupcakes.

The icing was yellow and covered in silver and green sprinkles. The cake itself was a deep red. These were all symbols for fantasy stories or elements, I told them. With that, they had to work together to figure it out. No symbols? No eating!

Soon enough, and probably with some help from me, they figured out the symbols. The yellow icing was representative of our beloved Aslan, the lion The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The silver sprinkles represented winter and cold (ie. the White Witch and her followers) while the green sprinkles represented grass and spring (pertinent to the book). The red cake was generally interpreted as blood (hey, fantasy is rarely clean and simple), and we agreed to consider it dragon blood.

The cupcakes were from a box, but with a little extra effort they became something really special that I still remember nearly three years later. That was a fun day.

Symbolism cupcakes!

Class Dismissed

After I dismissed my fifth graders for the final time last year, the school guidance counselor found me and said, “Mr. Foteah, I’ve never seen a fifth grade class leave like yours. On the last day of school, all the other students say, ‘Bye, teacher! Bye, teacher!’ But all of yours are in tears.”

Well, what can I say? I’m a sentimental guy, and I lay it on thick for the last day of school. Although the little rugrats may test my patience and nerves as the final day approaches, I’m not the kind of person to look at the last day as liberation. Sure, I look forward to the summer, and I enjoy the break from the stress, but I believe my job is about instilling memories that my kids won’t soon forget. And so, I look at the last day as one final blowout in celebration of our accomplishments as individuals and as a family.

In my limited experience, the last day is one of subdued joy – almost somber, even. Sure, we’re all thrilled to be moving ahead – to the summer, and in our educational careers – but there’s a decided tug that tethers our hearts to the memories of the previous six months, and the realization that we are leaving the comfortable community we established can be very difficult.

One of the activities I have planned is sharing the final product that is the scrapbook the class designed with major assistance from Mama Foteah. It turned out beautifully, and there are some surprises in it for them to enjoy.

At graduation, students viewed a slideshow of all the fifth grades, separated by class, where each class had about a dozen pictures. While it was nice, and some students remarked they came close to tears reliving the memories, it lacked a personal touch. When you’ve got more than 12 classes and someone else is preparing your class’ photos, it’s understandable.

Last year, I created a two song slideshow for my class. I told myself I wouldn’t this year, not feeling quite the same emotional attachment I felt to my first class. When I saw the photos I got from Field Day, though, with their arms wrapped around each other, as carefree as I’ve ever seen, I knew I had to do it. So this year’s installment of Mr. Foteah’s slideshow features three songs and pictures of each individual from the first week of school and one of the last. There are also considerable numbers of photos from all our wonderful memories.

Last year’s slideshow left even the most hardened of my students sobbing with their heads in their arms. This year, I’ve warned some of a very emotional surprise for the last day of school. We’ll watch tomorrow as our final collective act before I dismiss them with some words of advice and wisdom for each student as s/he heads out the door.

From there, I’ll take an overview of the room I loved and must leave, and like the ending of a television series, I’ll close the light and door for the final time. As the camera fades to black, I’ll walk out of the building for the final time, prepared to embark on what should be a challenging, rewarding change in my career next September.

Class dismissed. See you in September.

Moments to Remember

We are in the waning days of the school year, and it is a particularly special time for my graduating fifth graders.

The three official rites of passage for the graduates in my school are: awards night, a dance, and the graduation ceremony itself. All are charged with emotions that run the gamut from pride to joy to sadness to curiosity. For an 11-year old, the last couple of weeks of fifth grade, knowing you’re at the end of your elementary career and ready to conquer the next phase of life, are really wonderful times.

Monday was awards night, and there was a palpable buzz in the classroom that day for the students who were invited to accept an award at night. They were anxious to get gussied up – the girls with their barettes, the boys with their too-short ties. The fact that I resolutely refused to even give them a hint what awards they would receive only made the anticipaiton greater.

Last year, I didn’t feel the need because I guess I had a greater connection with the class, but this year, I wanted to find a way to honor the individual accomplishments each student made. So, for the 19 or so students who didn’t receive an awards night invitation, I decided we could have our own awards ceremony.

So that morning, I presented an award to each student in the classroom, for accomplishments ranging from “quiet excellence” to “most eager translator” to “greatest personal improvement since fourth grade.” I talked up each child without their name before giving out their awards. Of course, the class couldn’t resist calling out their ideas of who the next recipient would be. Sometimes they were spot on. Others, they were shocked – and that delivered the greatest payoff. The recipients themselves sometimes didn’t even realize I had been talking about them. Needless to say, there were some beautiful smiles in my photographs that day – quite the opposite of the forced half-slants I usually get.

Graduation itself is early next week, with the dance following on Friday. However, today was an unexpectedly wonderful experience for the class: the school’s first Field Day.

Students participated in five different competitions. My kids don’t get recess, and in fact, are in our room every minute of the day (including lunch), so this was a rare special treat. Getting the opportunity to run and scream and dance around truly freed their inhibitions as self-conscious preteens.

They cheered each other as they competed. They supported each other when they failed. They dashed this way and that, so enthused with excitement they weren’t sure what to do with themselves, let alone their water bottles.

When we came to the end of the activities, there was still some time left, so the class started dancing to the thumping music blasting throughout the schoolyard. Soon enough, the girls decided it’d be fun to make a circle and throw their arms around each other. They were jumping, screaming, and giggling. It was so spontaneous and joyous that I was truly taken aback. The boys then joined in and pretty soon the whole class was in a circle together. There was absolutely no pretense – just sheer, unbridled joy.

I grabbed my camera and did a belly flop into the middle, where I pointed it up and told them to look into it. And they did.

No groans. No sighs. No grimaces.

This afternoon, when I looked at the pictures, I was stunned. This group of kids who so often refuse to smile or take their sweatshirts off, or allow themselves to show sensitivity, was smiling broadly, exuberantly dancing, hair flying in the wind and sparkling against a gorgeous blue sky. In some shots, bold smiles were set before the towering 5-story school building. I felt a tremendous feeling of happiness for them, having finally let themselves go and showing each other how much they care for one another.

Tomorrow, we will talk about how heartening it was to hear words of encouragement echoing around our class. We’ll discuss what the day felt like.

My guess is most will side with what Esperanza said to no one in particular as she smiled and wiped her hair out of her face after a particularly boisterous jumping session with two of her friends: “I’m never going to forget this moment.”


I learned Friday that all of my students passed both the math and ELA tests. That means, with the social studies test they took in November, every last one of my students passed each test – something that wasn’t true last year.

When I first saw the report Friday, I felt a surge of pride for my students. And then, when I told them, with little hesitation, that they all passed both tests, they were elated, and I felt joyful again.

Please tell me I only feel this way because they worked hard for something and accomplished it…

NY Post: 2+2=5?

I woke up this morning to find the top story on the New York Post’s web site was about the inflation of NYC test math scores. The article doesn’t really contain any information that news to me, but I figured it  would be a good catalyst to share my own similar experiences.

The article centers around a Brooklyn teacher hired and trained to mark the state tests. Referring to the scoring guide, the Post indicates the mistakes a student can make but still receive partial credit.

Now, to be fair, I did not see the fourth grade test this year, nor the scoring guide. So I can’t speak totally to the validity of the Post’s reporting about them. I have, of course, seen scoring guides from the past, and have even taught my students how the holistic rubric scoring system works, and how they are able to receive points even if their answers are wrong.

Here’s an example the Post pulls from the scoring guide, an instance in which children are allowed points based on methodology and not answers:

A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches long gets half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12.

I can tell you that would, in my professional estimation, be an accurate depiction of what a scoring guide would typically tell a scorer.

Commenters to the article are using this opportunity to blast the UFT for putting tenure and teachers ahead of students. These people miss the point entirely. The very basic fact, as all teachers know, is that tests are dumbed down. If it’s not because of the questions, it’s because of the answers. This isn’t news to those of us on the inside who are genuinely angered by the reliance on these tests that, you see, measure very little. As the Brooklyn source says,

“The kids who really need the help are just being shuffled along to the next grade without the basic skills to have true success. They are given a hollow success — that’s the crime of it. The state DOE is doing a disservice to its children.”
Uh, gee, ya think?
I’ve never scored the tests officially, but what the Post reports is not an isolated incident. Let me share some of what I heard from my own colleagues who scored tests this year and in previous ones.
  • In one scorer’s room this year, there was a class set of ELA tests where one of the written responses was the same in every answer booklet. It seemed clear to my colleague and the other scorers that the teacher/proctor modeled the response and either dictated it or had students copy it. The set was flagged and removed from the room.
  • Colleagues of mine were told that, on the ELA, even if a kid’s written response makes no sense, partial credit would be given for as little as one sentence.

Believe me, these things infuriate us as teachers. Here, I’m not talking about my oft-repeated stance that it’s unfair to the children to force them to take high-stakes tests that determine their worth on the basis of two days out of the year. What I’m saying is something I’ve felt since the beginning of my career, but have never really brought up in this forum. These tests, which are so obviously watered down for the purpose of inflating scores, do not at all indicate a student’s readiness for the next grade. I’m sorry: many are not ready. Yet, off they go.

Something we often talk about at work, and not in a joking manner, is how interesting it will be to see what our world is like when this generation is in charge. They have been rewarded for substandard work, don’t learn grammar or spelling, and in many cases, loathe reading. This is not the fault of teachers, or of students, or even parents. It’s the fault of a system that just is not working.

What flummoxes and scares me more than anything is who is winning the PR battle with parents on this issue. It’s the city, far and away. Parents are led to believe that test scores mean everything. A colleague told me parents of one of her students threatened to send the student back to her original country if she didn’t pass the tests. A school that crows about their improvement and success on test scores is lauded for being a great school. Sorry: no.

The reality, as I’ve written before, is that these scores are meaningless. No one’s course in life will be determined by how they fare on a 3rd grade test.

We continue to head down a troublesome path. We, the professionals, know it, but our opinions are not of any importance to people concerned only with bottom lines (no matter how poorly they indicate reality).

For the city, I guess 2+2 really does equal 5.

Update: 12:00 PM

I was remiss not to mention this in the original post. I knew it, of course, but Ms. Flecha reminded me. We will not have raw scores (the three digit ones) until July. School ends June 28. Another indicator of how meaningless these tests really are – the kids will be gone by the time we even know how they did. So, what’s the point?

Let’s Be Honest

I recently read my students a book in which a teacher employs a system where her students are able to freely and openly send her classroom mail. In the book, students write letters about the first day, trips, classroom visitors, observations from the principal, and more.

After reading the book, I offered my students the opportunity to write me a forthright and honest letter. I have made some strides lately with this class in terms of being comfortable enough in their own skin to speak their minds, challenge ideas, and show sensitivity and emotions they otherwise might not. I told them I’d like them to choose one of the following ideas to write about:

– What should I know that I don’t?

– What is our class like when an assistant principal or principal visits?

– What is the most important conversation you and I have had? Or, what was the best conversation our class has had?

– Did we do anything special this year that made you feel proud to be part of this class?

– Did I do anything this year that I was wrong about?

Here are some samples of what students wrote. Take note of their honesty, which I demanded from them, regardless of the sentiments:

Do you remember when we were singing for the graduation? You were dancing a little, right? Other students were laughing. But I was just going red in the cheeks. It is like you are my dad doing something totally embarassing. But I am not saying that I … want you to stop dancing. You could dance all you want. You can even dance while you read this. But I still will be embarassed. To the best teacher ever. From, Lorelei

I think you’re the best teacher. When I first saw you I thought you were very strict. But as days passed, it seemed that Mr. Foteah wasn’t strict at all. And I knew that Mr. Foteah could be my #1 teacher and it was real. Mr. Foteah is the best teacher in the world. Sincerely, Leo

I’m not sure what you wanted us to think when we first met you. But I thought you looked brave and proud of the class and students you got this year. And I was proud of the teacher I got this year. Also, my mom is proud of the teacher I got this year. She’s always bragging of how good of a teacher you are. I could not agree any more. Actuall, I think I will cry when I leave. Sincerely, Vivian

I think you shouldn’t tell me to go to the trips. That is because I got so bored. …I’d rather stay at school and learn. So I hope next year, you won’t tell a student who doesn’t want to go to the trip to go. Mostly the ones that will vomit. Your student, Mighty Mouse

I’m sorry because I behaved bad with you in the middle of the school year. I felt really sorry. Sincerely, Nick

When we went to the basketball game, some of us were bored and hungry and we felt like we wanted to leave. To tell you the truth, I didn’t enjoy the game. Sincerely, Bruce

When you first came inside of the classroom, I thought you were mean and hated everything fun but you’re the exact opposite. You helped me with your problems. You’re the only teacher that encouraged me to hold a pencil right and go the extra mile. by Jay

On Neighbors

As we approach graduation day (I won’t call it “moving up,” by the way. Let’s honor these children – this is one of the biggest accomplishments of their lives thus far), my students and their peers are practicing five songs.

I am the only teacher in my cluster of four who has both the knowledge (having done this last year) and gusto (being willing to sing in front of kids) to teach the songs to our students. So, today and yesterday, my students and I welcomed in our next-door neighbors so we could learn collaboratively.

It’s always an experience when these two classes join forces. I enjoy a tremendous rapport with the teacher next-door to me. We share similar educational values, concerns, and perspectives of fairness. So, we work very well together.

Her class is an amazing hodgepodge of new immigrants from a variety of countries. Early in the year, I would avoid walking in there, knowing I’d have trouble understanding them and they’d have similar troubles with me. We had a turning point, though, when they eagerly started telling me about some of the incredible things they were learning (read: American Sign Language) and wouldn’t allow me to go to lunch without them teaching me how to spell my name.

I was so taken by their excitement and willingness to share that I dropped all pretense and instantly anointed the class my favorite in the building (other than my own!) Since then, I’ve loved going in there. I call the room the United Nations because of all the languagues spoken. As the year has progressed, each student has grown immeasurably in their command of the English language and their confidence. With many of them, we’re to the point now where I no longer feel I have to slow…down…my…speech for their benefit. We can talk comfortably.

I’m so excited that our neighbors are going to be in the spotlight at graduation. Our assistant principal asked them to sing the official graduation song in sign language, and they’re going to. The last two days, my class and I were treated to watching them sign as we sang. It’s just incredible to see.

Today, as they were signing the song, I glanced up from the lyrics and noticed a handful of my students trying to do the same. Trying for the first time, they were a step behind, of course, but they were so intrigued that they spontaneously sought to sign along without frustration. I tapped my colleague and said, “Look! My kids are trying to sign it!” We were both tickled pink.

Being next door to this special group, I have witnessed their wonderful transformations from a unique perspective (the outsider who is a little bit on the inside). My kids have made their own strides, no doubt, and, in reflecting lately on some of the changes they’ve made in themselves from the start of the year, I’ve truly been surprised and happy. Our neighbors, though, have done their own sensational things, and being next to them has provided me unexpected, vicarious treats and thrills.

So, come graduation day, I’ll surely be cheering my students on nice and loud. But, make no mistake about it. I’ll keep some of that pride for my second favorite class, and I’ll be beaming right there with them as they receive recognition for all their outstanding achievements.

The May/June Swoon

With the ELA and Math tests now firmly in our rear view mirrors (and simultaneously so far ahead of us – who knows when we’ll ever see results?), and my students knowing they’re mere weeks away from slamming open the side door for the last time before heading off to middle school, I and my class seem to be settling into a bit of a rut.

Oh, rut, rut what havoc you wreak. See, here’s the problem. These children are so conditioned to think that the tests are the be-all and end-all (not to mention the Alpha and the Omega, as well as all that matters.) Now they’re over, so many, if not most of us, are merely going through the motions. Even with NYSESLAT testing happening this week, there’s just a general malaise of laxity hovering above our heads.

We are struggling to get back into the routines of and playing catchup in Everyday Math (in which, due to a cacophony of scheduling issues in the months leading up to the test, I am a unit behind). We’re basically just doing it now to get it done – it’s all a review of standards-based work we did to prepare for the test. Our journalism unit, which so captivated their imaginations the first couple of days, has sputtered. Word work and shared reading have basically fallen by the wayside as we work to memorize songs for graduation.

Last year, at this time, I was somehow emboldened to basically do what I wanted for the last month. I rationalized it by saying what I said above – the tests were done, so let’s party on. This year, somehow, I feel more of a duty to stay the course. No idea why.

We are beginning graduation rehearsals the week after next. When that starts, it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to rein the class in. Let’s face it, much as they may be crying their little eyes out when they leave me on the last day of school, they are already almost as good as gone? Can I blame them, though? Aren’t I and all of my colleagues, too?

In my class, we will be creating a scrapbook. It’s a fun, creative experience that results in a memento for me to treasure. They’re still learning, so what’s the problem? I’ve got to keep them active and engaged, anyway.

Some teachers will probably be holding movie marathons. At least I’m working their brains. That way, when they go flying out that side door for the last time, they’re going with their brains not having been allowed to turn to mush. Middle school teachers, you can thank me later.


As you visit this site today, you no doubt take notice of the major “rebranding” I’ve executed since your last trip to my classroom.

“The World As I See It” was conceived in December as a place where I would share my thoughts on teaching, photography, and even cooking (read my first post, I actually said these things!). Since then, it has, organically and appropriately, evolved into a site that is predominantly about my experiences and perspectives in the classroom. Therefore, it is fitting to have a site name and format that best emphasizes my angle.

I give you “From the Desk of Mr. Foteah.”

While the appearance seems dramatically different, it really isn’t. My sidebars remain pretty much intact, and, most importantly, the witty, honest writing you have come to expect from me will stay the same.

I hope you’ll continue to visit, enjoy, and comment. Thank you for your continued support.

An Apology from a Teacher Who, It Turns Out, Doesn’t Know Everything

Dear Gladys,

Today, when you were supposed to be reading your book, and while I was meeting with another student, I saw you writing something furiously. You are one of the few students in the class who regularly and dutifully records your thoughts on post-its, and, when I excused myself from my conference to come see what you were doing, I expected to see just that. However, when I asked you what you were doing, you told me about your book. I listened, but continued to glance at what you were trying to hide under your arm. When I saw it, I was less than happy. You were doing last night’s homework, and I was livid.

I did not react as I should have. Taking your paper and crumpling it was inappropriate. Had I thought for a moment, instead of reacting instantly, I would have remembered that you are one of the most diligent, hard-working students in the class. I would have realized something was amiss.

I should have asked you why you didn’t do your homework, rather than make rash assumptions. But I didn’t. Instead, I tossed your paper in the trash and returned to the other student, without a word to you or even a glance back, thinking that you’d receive the message of disappointment and disdain I sought to deliver. (Maybe I didn’t want to see the horror that had surely set upon your face).

When I finished with the other student, I called you over to my desk and told you to sit. Again, I seethed, and let my emotions get the best of me. I continued to lecture you and said I was upset with two things: you didn’t do your homework, and you lied to me.

But then I saw you were becoming upset. And that’s when I pulled back. That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was dealing with Gladys. There had to be something going on here. You pretty much always do your homework, and we enjoy a strong rapport. Now, as your shame turned to tears, I finally let you speak.

You told me your 51-year old mother was sick. She had a disease you couldn’t remember the name of, but it meant that her bones were weak and could break. You told me she was in pain and feeling aggravation from you and your brother. I asked you if you had a sister close in age that you were friends with. You told me that, of your eight siblings, that sister repeatedly blamed you for your parents’ divorce.

I sent a trusted student for tissues so you could dry your tears. I listened intently, all the while feeling like a fool for the way I handled your attempt to make me happy by having your homework. You struggled to get many of your words out, clearly hurting from the stresses of home life.

When I threw your work in the garbage, I invalidated your efforts, and by extension, invalidated you. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but reflecting on it now, I know that must be how you felt. You must have been embarrassed, too. You probably felt powerless – kind of like you’re feeling at home.

At the beginning of the year, I told you and your classmates that our room would be a safe, respectful place for everyone. This afternoon, it ceased being so for you. Worst of all, I was the one to shatter the serenity.

You didn’t deserve that. You show up daily for school, not uttering a single complaint about having to wear hand-me-downs that are several sizes too big, keeping quiet your feelings about your home as you shoulder loads no child your age should have to. Why did I allow one minor and meaningless incident to cloud the ways you’ve inspired and amazed me this year?

You have improved exponentially. You’ve moved up five reading levels. You’ve written honest, riveting stories that have brought me to the verge of tears. You’ve  gained confidence and have shown kindness to everyone. I feel terribly that my stupidity may have undone the pride you’ve come to have in yourself.

Tomorrow, I will apologize to you in person. You’ll pardon me, I hope, if I get a little emotional. I will ask you to try to rewrite what I so flippantly cast aside as garbage, and will instead, choose to honor your dedication to improving yourself. I will remind you of what I told you today when I realized how severely I had misjudged the situation: that you’re a wonderful young adult who cares for her friends and family, and that you are one of the most dedicated students in the class. I will ask you to forgive me for being so crass.

I will tell you that I made a mistake and will commit to doing my best to think before acting. Internally, I will remind myself that you and your classmates often have it worse at home than I could ever imagine. And I will remember one of my mantras about your peers and you: Given the circumstances, sometimes it’s amazing just how well you all do.

Sometimes teachers have to learn, too. Thank you for helping me learn.


Your Teacher